Bryant during last weekend’s Beast of the East win.
Bryant College is heading to the USA Rugby DII College 7s National Championship for the first time in the Rhode Island team’s history. The trip to Tucson, Ariz., will be a new experience for more reasons than one.
“Our team doesn’t love 7s,” Bryant coach Rosie Harter circled the struggle. “They just love 15s more and I can’t tell you why. I think it’s because there’s more structure [in 15s] and they like structure. But they also like winning, so they’re starting to like 7s now.”
The coaching staff started selling 7s two spring seasons ago, assuring the team that a good 7s player makes for a better 15s player. Last year, Bryant fell just short of the Rugby Northeast (RNE) 7s title and then followed with a great 15s season in fall 2018. The Bulldogs won the RNE 15s title, advanced through the first two rounds of regional, and then lost to eventual champion Vassar in the quarterfinals. Bryant scored 24 points on day two of a double-header weekend against the Brewers – no small feat, especially with only 18 players.
However, low numbers meant that players had to be versatile and aptly fill multiple positions for when vacancies occurred. The team’s communication also refined and allowed new player combinations to function well. When everyone returned (save the team’s best finisher, who is studying abroad) for February practices, players were more confident in their own abilities.
“We had a strong foundation from last year and were building off that,” Harter talked evolution. “They were more comfortable with passing, so we started adding in switches and loops, and the ball movement got a lot better, too.”
Bryant joined the New England College 7s Circuit (NEC7C) for a second consecutive year and played four tournaments during the series. The Bulldogs were able to play DI teams like Boston University and Northeastern, and that uptick in competition focused the team’s attention on areas of improvement. Harter reflected on a game against Norwich’s club side and how it highlighted the team’s progress during the spring.
“My team was really preparing for the worst,” Harter said of Norwich as a strong opponent. “But they stepped up. There was great ball movement, side to side with no turnovers. They were poaching on defense, and moving the ball quickly so Norwich couldn’t reset on defense. They were feeding off each other.
“There was a lot of communication, too. They realized in the first 30 seconds, ‘Oh we missed that ruck,’ or, ‘They flooded that ruck,’ and made adjustments. They made decisions that were making an impact,” Harter said. “I didn’t have anything to tell them during halftime – there’s no time to coach during a 7s game anyway.”
By the time the RNE 7s Championship arrived, Bryant was operating in another tier relative to its opposition. The Bulldogs shut out all of its opponents except UMass Lowell, which dotted down one try, and won the automatic qualifier to USA Rugby’s DII 7s nationals.
And then euphoria! No, not quite yet. The following week saw a quick transition back to 15s, as Bryant readied for the Beast of the East, a team favorite. That focus consumed the team, which then took its 18 players to Providence for five wins and a DII trophy. The team will regroup Thursday and resume its 7s regimen, but even then, there’s still a month until nationals. Enthusiasm might be most visible in the fundraising frenzy that’s necessary for a trip to Tucson.
“You have to find a balance. You don’t want to burn them out when nationals is still a month away,” Harter said. “After this weekend, everyone will pretty much be done playing, and playing each other can be a little tiring.”
Fortunately, captain Margaret Mellitt loves 7s and is able to rally the team. She was named to the All-NEC7C team last year and connects really well with Melissa Mallahan. The 15s outside center has a nose for the gap, and Mellitt runs good support lines to extend those breaks after the offload.
Power wise, Jen Rosinski is the example. A No. 8 in 15s, the versatile player can set up in the scrum or hang with the backs. And pulling it all together is flyhalf Sarah Felkel, the conductor.
“She doesn’t like scoring or any glory of any kind, but she’s good at reading the field and knowing what has to happen,” Harter described a player who garners respect and excels in decision-making.
So Bryant might not be in celebration mode just yet, and maybe the team will never fully embrace 7s, but Harter isn’t worried about an output of effort in Tucson.
“This is one of the best teams that Bryant has seen in a long time,” the coach concluded. “It’s one thing to win titles … and yes, it’s because they have skill. But they have a lot of heart. They never give up. It’s hard to play five games with just 18 players [at Beast of the East]. They’re sore and tired, but they won’t show it. They just don’t care. If their teammate wants it, then they’ll give more, and they do it for each other.”
The USA Rugby College 7s Championships occur May 24-26 in Tucson.